UK museums face a tricky problem because of climate protests

LONDON — Room 34 of London’s National Gallery was packed with tourists on Monday afternoon studying the masterpieces of British art on its walls, including JMW Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire,” which depicts a ship of war towed to a breaker’s yard, and George Stubbs’ “Whistlejacket”, a huge painting of a horse soaring skyward.

Then, suddenly, two visitors broke the reverential mood. At 2:15 p.m., Eben Lazarus, 22, a music student, pulled out three posters of a hit. Then, with the help of 23-year-old psychology student Hannah Hunt, he pasted them onto John Constable’s “The Hay Wain,” a famous 19th-century painting, transforming its bucolic landscape into one with planes, fire-ravaged trees and a rusty car.

The couple then stripped their jackets to reveal ‘Just Stop Oil’ t-shirts, stuck to the picture frame and shouted the need for action on climate change. “Art is important,” Lazarus said, his voice echoing through the gallery. But it was “no more important than the lives of my brothers and sisters and every generation that we condemn to an unlivable future”.

Nearby, a school group was halfway discussing another painting. Clare MacDonnell, the teacher, seemed unfazed. “Oh my God, I think it’s a climatic manifestation,” she said. “How exciting!”

Over the past four years, climate disruptive protesters have become a daily phenomenon in Britain, following the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, an activist group that sees non-violent mass protest as the most effective way to get change. Some of its members are happy to be arrested, taking advantage of their trial to talk about climate issues.

In 2019, hundreds of his supporters repeatedly occupied roads and bridges around the British Parliament, closing down this part of the capital.

Last year, related group Insulate Britain began to occupy the motorways, while Just Stop Oil blocked fuel depots this year and over the weekend raced the Grand Prix track in Great Britain, a major motorsport event.

Events over the past week suggest that protesters now see art as a useful prop, although it’s far from the first time museums here have faced political protests. In 1914, suffragist Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery with a hatchet concealed in its sleeve, then hewed a naked Velázquez to protest the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst. In recent years, the British Museum, the Science Museum and the Tate group of art museums have faced theatrical protests over their acceptance of oil company sponsorship. (BP ended its sponsorship of the Tate museums in 2016.) But activists sticking to artworks are a new tactic.

Sarah Pickard, a lecturer at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in France who has studied Extinction Rebellion and its offshoots, said in a phone interview that museums were not so much a target in themselves as a way to gain advertising. The groups’ “overall strategy” is to take actions that get media attention, “and then move on to the next thing that creates a spark,” she said.

During the events of the past week, Just Stop Oil said some of the paintings were chosen for specific reasons, such as their importance or because they highlight issues related to climate change.

Pickard said protesters can say they have reason to target specific paintings, but she said their choices were largely ‘irrelevant’ because ‘the goal is to be disruptive’ to create discussion about what they see as an existential crisis. Events in Britain had the potential to be copied elsewhere, Pickard added, because protesters in France had already copied British actions.

At the Louvre in Paris in May, a man smeared what appeared to be cake on the glass protecting the Mona Lisa, then shouted that he was acting against “people destroying the planet”.

Mel Carrington, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, said in a telephone interview that the targeting of museums was a way to “psychologically pressure the government” through advertising. Van Gogh’s protest had received worldwide media coverage, she said, unlike previous actions at oil terminals. Carrington said protesters didn’t care if people didn’t like their actions; they weren’t trying to make friends.

None of the paintings appear to have been damaged. A spokeswoman for the National Gallery said in an emailed statement that the Constable landscape ‘has suffered minor damage to its frame and there has also been disturbance to the surface of the varnish on the painting’ . He returned to the screen on Tuesday.

Simon Gillespie, an art restorer, said in a phone interview that the solvents could dissolve the glues protesters had used on the frames. “Thank goodness they didn’t choose to stick to the oil paint film because undoing it would be very difficult,” he added.

Pressuring the paintings to apply posters could also cause harm, he said, but protesters appear to have worked to limit any damage. “They were respectful,” he said.

When Extinction Rebellion emerged in 2018, it garnered widespread sympathy in Britain, where environmental concerns have long been high on the public agenda. Yet the group’s disruptive tactics have since become an annoyance to many. In recent polls by polling firm YouGov, around 15% of respondents said they supported the group, compared to 45% who opposed it.

Nadine Dorries, British Minister for Culture, wrote in a tweet this week that the protesters in the painting were “attention seekers” who “don’t help anything but their own selfish egos.”

The two National Gallery protesters were arrested on Monday. The Metropolitan Police said in an email on Wednesday that they had been conditionally released pending further investigation.

At the museum on Monday after the protest, nine visitors said in interviews that they did not support the targeting of the paintings. Luciana Pezzotti, 65, a retired teacher from Italy, said she cared about climate change and approved of the protest, but “why bother art with it?”

Among the crowds of visitors, however, at least one youngster voiced his support. Emma Baconnet, an art student from Lyon, France, said it was “very important” that climate protesters were provocative to get their message heard. “Sometimes it’s a bit too much,” she says. “But if we just talk, governments don’t listen.”

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